Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you
Reflection – So now we come to the last two beatitudes, which are so interconnected that they are numbered together. The eighth beatitude, and what a corker it is.
We have to tread carefully here, I think. Too often today we are quick to use the ‘p’ word (persecution) for things that don’t really rise to that level. When Richard Dawkins says that Christians are big fat dummies (OK, I’m paraphrasing him), that may be annoying but it’s hardly persecution.
When people scoff at religion, or casually and groundlessly accuse all Catholic priests of heinous crimes against children, or express their disagreement with this or that Church teaching with, perhaps, a certain amount of vehemence, anger, profanity—that is not persecution.
When the surrounding culture in which we live is more and more removed from Christian values and mores, and we have to be vigilant and sparing in our exposure to mass entertainment and culture so as not to be corrupted by its false values—that is not persecution.
Many people have seen the pictures of Archbishop Leonard of Brussels being attacked with water and pies to the face by screaming, topless women. He has, throughout this rather painful ordeal of public humiliation and ugliness, said that this too is not persecution. He happens to be a good friend of Madonna House, being the bishop who invited us to Belgium when he was in the diocese of Namur, and he is very clear eyed and simple about this fact.
We have to be careful about claiming the mantle of persecution, lest we make ourselves appear ridiculous to others. People being nasty and mean and contemptuous to us is not persecution. So what is?
Well, how about having marauding gangs of thugs burning your churches down, sometimes with you in them? Like the Christians in Nigeria. Or being faced each day with either death or exile as a militant group of radicals assumes greater power in your country. Like the Christians in Egypt. Or being arrested for any kind of public display on one’s religion. Like the very few Christians in Saudi Arabia. Or being allowed the exercise of your religion only under strict government control and supervision. Like in China. Or having no right whatsoever to practice any kind of religion and being jailed, tortured and killed if caught doing so. Like in North Korea.
These are the people of the eighth beatitude today (I haven’t tried to provide a comprehensive list here), and we need to be very clear about the vast difference between the challenges we face and the reality they are living. We who live in North America and Europe—OK, so it’s not easy to be a Christian now. But when has it ever been? We are not persecuted, not yet, not now.
But if we are in the future, or even to whatever small extent people say nasty things about us and are hostile and angry towards us—well, blessed are we, right? I mean, that’s what Our Lord says here. We have to be careful and tread lightly here, and not take ourselves too seriously in all this. The Lord promises us that if the world hated him it will hate us too. So, the world hates us! A little bit, anyhow! Big deal! Who cares! Grow up and get used to it! C’est la vie! La vie de l’evangile!
OK, I’ll stop writing in exclamation points now. I do think, though, that we have to take hold of the Gospel on this point a bit more deeply than we have. Christianity has moved over the past fifty years in North America from being the overwhelmingly dominant world view of the culture to being not so dominant, to having less influence. This may increase, or not, may get uglier and nastier, or not. Who knows, really?
But to whatever extent we are opposed, reviled, spoken falsely of, or even (maybe) persecuted, the Lord tells us to rejoice and be glad, for our reward is great in heaven. It is All Souls Day today, when we pray for all the faithful departed. And so between yesterday’s celebration of All Saints and today’s sober call to prayer for our brothers and sisters in Purgatory, we are called to remember that this world and this life is temporary, quite short really in light of eternity, and that the sole beatitude, the sole happiness and joy in life is to be with Jesus, to live as Jesus lived by the power of his grace and mercy.
There is no other way to live a blessed life, so if our portion of that Christ-life happens to involve some unpleasantness, with people treating us the way they treated Him, let us not whine about it or complain or get all worked up. Rejoice and be glad—we are being blessed, and the kingdom of heaven is ours, alleluia.